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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 21:17 GMT
'The revolution I longed for'
By Charles Wheeler
Veteran correspondent, Newsnight

Charles Wheeler
Charles Wheeler: 'The journalism was sound from the start'
None of us who were there at the Creation are likely to forget Newsnight's infancy.

Take the studio set. Peter Snow, our rapid-fire chief presenter, anchored at a desk on floor level; the rest of us aloft - half a dozen self-conscious reporters, perched in individual nesting boxes, waiting our call to perform.

We'd hand over to one another: "David!"... "and back to you Peter " Curiously, for electronic reasons known only to experts in the gallery, if Peter was to our left we'd have to address a blank wall to the far right.

Then there was the menu, a contents bill illustrated with bits of film, stills and videotape that habitually appeared in the wrong place. It felt like a year before the gears engaged. But these were growing pains.

If studio production was not our strong suit in those early days, the journalism was sound from the start.

An early version of the famous sandpit featured in the first Newsnight
An earlier version of Peter Snow's famous sandpit as used in the first programme
Oddly enough it was the BBC's governors who were the begetters of Newsnight.

Since the return of television in the early 1950s, rivalry between News and Current Affairs had gradually hardened into barely disguised hostility.


Attempts to build bridges by cross-posting bosses - Leonard Miall, ex-Washington correspondent, to head Current Affairs; Michael Peacock and Derrick Amoore, editors of Panorama and Nationwide, to head TV News - had foundered; on both sides an undertow of prejudice among layers of long-serving deputies was simply too strong to resist.

So, in 1979, the governors ordered a merger of talents, a new programme to be manned by journalists and producers from both departments and to be given a late-evening slot on BBC Two.

The choice of George Carey, an energetic, imaginative free spirit from News, as editor, and of Ron Neill, his relaxed and affable deputy, who had run Tonight, was crucial.

Denis Healey
Denis Healy complained about appearing before an audience of alcoholics and insomniacs
Together they picked the team, which quickly and happily meshed. The Tonight people - as many young women as men - brought flair, especially to filming. And from News? I'm not sure, but perhaps calm under pressure and an aversion to skate-boarding ducks.

For the record, Newsnight had precious little help or encouragement from the BBC's upper reaches. The then Director-General, Alastair Milne, paid us a visit while we were struggling to get on the air, barked at us briefly and left, never to reappear.

Benign neglect

It was years before we were given 10:30pm as a regular start-time. (Denis Healy used to complain of being asked to appear before an audience composed of alcoholics and insomniacs.) It was more than a decade before News agreed to trail Newsnight at the end of its nightly bulletin.

On the other hand, benign neglect did bring rewards.

From the beginning we enjoyed a unique degree of editorial independence, choosing what stories to cover and what treatment to give them. And unlike Panorama - a weekly programme and therefore vulnerable - Newsnight escaped the attentions of John Birt. (I swear we'd have fought back if he'd tried to take us on.)

So, looking back, has Newsnight deserved its long run?

I'm biased, of course. For me, having repeatedly jumped from News to Current Affairs and back again, Newsnight was a revolution I had longed for, and my time there was the best in a long working life. It added depth and clarity to television journalism and did so without being pretentious.

As for its future, I can't imagine anyone trying to rest or replace it. Ever.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10:30pm on BBC Two in the UK.


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